Sunday Times, 15 April 2013
Back in the grim but glorious days of 1978, a young Dutch photographer named Anton Corbijn arrived in Los Angeles. It was his first trip to America. He took a taxi to the Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Boulevard. Stepping out of the cab, he found Tom Waits sitting on the sidewalk.
“It was,” he recalls, savouring the memory, “a Hollywood dream come true.”
He shouldn’t have been surprised. The Tropicana, now sadly gone, was to LA what the Chelsea Hotel was and is to New York — rock’n’roll central. There’s no point in listing the people who stayed there because everybody stayed there. Tom was a permanent resident; he lived in a bungalow round the back.
Anton knew exactly who he was, because he’d sneaked backstage at a concert in Amsterdam and dashed off a few shots. They were grainy, vivid and they showed a man with an astonishing, haunting face that seemed to express everything and yet nothing. Above all, this man was cool.
“He always looks,” says the film-maker Jim Jarmusch, “so f******* cool.”
Tom didn’t remember Anton, but at the Tropicana they started a friendship that has now lasted 35 years. “I thought he was a doctor,” Tom recalls, “he had a kind of air about him. He’s very dignified very measured and, in some ways, he’s very calculating and very curious, quiet, studious, controlled. I’m more jerky and impatient.”
They were grainy, vivid and they showed a man with an astonishing, haunting face that seemed to express everything and yet nothing. Above all, this man was cool.
The contrast between the two was fortuitous because, as Tom says about his own marriage, “if two people know the same things, one of you is unnecessary.” He says a lot of things like that and he sings many more.
Starting with those shots in Amsterdam, Anton compiled an archive of photographs of Tom. Even though it covers almost four decades, the style is consistent. Everything is shot on film — Kodak Tri-X, the grainy drama of which defined the black-and-white images of the Sixties and Seventies.
“Grain feels like life,” says Anton, “there’s something in there…”
‘There is something about Tom, something non-rock’n’roll. There’s a life in there’
He took pictures each time they met — only of Tom, nobody else ever appeared. There’s something loving about the photos. Anton says little about how he sees Tom. On principle, he wants the pictures to speak for themselves. But Tom is fulsome in his own strange way about Anton.
“He waits for a photo to come… he is like a surfer waiting for a wave, or a highway patrolman, or a spider waiting for a fly or a hunter or a nature photographer, waiting for two lions to copulate in the wild.”
They’d play around and Tom would sort of pose, often twisting his angular body into strange shapes. He is naturally theatrical. He played with his body as he plays with words when we speak.
“A lot of people love to photograph him,” says Anton. “There is something about Tom, something non-rock’n’roll. There’s a life in there. It’s interesting that when Tom was younger he tried to look older. Now he’s trying to look a little younger.”
OK, for the young, ignorant and, if they haven’t heard the entire oeuvre, terminally uncool, here’s the story of what was really going on here. Bob Dylan may be the greatest American songwriter of the postwar era but Tom Waits is up there; he is certainly the most extraordinary and, in so many ways, the most authentic. Like Dylan, he breathes in the whole history of American song and breathes it out in new and strange forms.
Also, like Dylan, he is way outside the mainstream, a point he celebrated with typical withering charm when, in 2011, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Like Dylan, he breathes in the whole history of American song and breathes it out in new and strange forms.
In fact, it’s not really clear which stream he swims in. There are two Waits phases: ’73 to ’80 and ’80 to now. The dividing line is not an album, a song or a change of label, it is a wife. He met Kathleen Brennan on the set of Francis Ford Coppola’s film One from the Heart. She is a musician but, for Coppola, she was working on scripts. It was — I hate to say this, but in this case it’s true — love at first sight. They married at a 24-hour wedding chapel and, ever since, at any opportunity Tom finds new strings of metaphors to describe her glory. I got my own special instant poem.
“She opened my eyes, she’s a real trapeze artist. She’s my headlamp and my road map and my hood ornament, my sunglasses and my spotlight, she’s all that.”
His devotion is legendary, exotic. The music journalist and critic Robert Christgau describes Tom as “the most uxorious American this side of Barack Obama”. But it is also professional. BK — before Kathleen — Tom was an inspired but only erratically acknowledged singer-songwriter. Martha, from his first album, was covered by Tim Buckley, and Ol’ 55 was covered by the Eagles and that made him sort of famous, as did his first commercially significant album, Small Change. But it was all a bit ragged. He moved into the Tropicana in 1975 and acquired a drink problem.
“Everybody had a drink problem then,” he said. Fair enough, it was the 1970s and there was lot to get drunk about. His songs were, however, superb. Some still say this was his best period. But AK — after Kathleen — things changed. She introduced him to the work of Captain Beefheart, rock’s most avant-garde star, and Kurt Weill and, together, they produced the wildly odd album Swordfishtrombones. They have worked together ever since.
Their collaborations can be startling, both intimate and improvised. There’s a song called Pontiac in which, to the sound of traffic noise, Tom acts the old guy, recalling every car he’s ever owned. It’s about Kathleen’s dad and she recorded it as they were driving along and Tom had slipped into one of his idle, improvised riffs. This guy, as I find when we speak, sings when he talks.
As if that wasn’t enough, they have three children, and their two sons play drums and guitar when he goes on the road. Tom is a family business. But there’s another family member who looms just as large in Tom’s imagination: Jesse Frank Waits, his father, who, after divorcing his mother, moved out of the family home. He was named, appropriately enough, after the outlaws Jesse and Frank James. Tom pined for him ever after.
Though he was exactly the right age — born in 1949 — he was never, you see, a hippie. He was a beat, a child of the Fifties rather than the Sixties, who had first been formed by reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road
“I would wait by cars that were the same make and model as his like, you know, a dog by his food dish, and imagine that he would come out of that office building and we’d get in and drive off together.”
He did see Jesse, who had moved to New Mexico, and they did drive together and this, perhaps, offers one very big key to a door into Tomworld: the American road.
Though he was exactly the right age — born in 1949 — he was never, you see, a hippie. He was a beat, a child of the Fifties rather than the Sixties, who had first been formed by reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the beat bible. Some of his most moving songs — notably Ol’ 55 and (Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night — are all about cars, about movement.
“Kerouac? God, yeah, sure. I wanted to be on the road. I wanted to be famous like Robert Frank’s photograph of Highway 85 going through New Mexico: a dramatic black-and-white photo with the highway going to a vanishing point. It was like a sign for me. If I’d seen that when I was 16 I would have decided to drive a truck for a living. Yeah, away is the place to go for me…
“My favourite highway recently is the Interstate 5. It runs through Oakland and all the way to Los Angeles. It’s just flat and really dramatic, it’s so empty, it’s like being in the middle of the ocean. I’ve been driving a lot lately. I don’t like to take planes because I have too many things in my pockets and it’s too confusing in the airports. I have a lot of things in my pockets they disagree with in security.”
Note the sudden digressive swerve. I may have found a key, but he’s not going to let me unlock anything. “You sing a lot about cars,” I say, trying to encourage him.
“Yeah, well, nobody’s perfect,” he mutters, ready to change the subject.
OK, did he regret never being a big pop star? This produces a vintage Tom riff.
“I guess I’ve been ambiguous about that from the very beginning. It’s like being in a restaurant and ordering the most expensive thing on the menu, and you realise it’s hog jowls or deer genitals. Things are always more interesting when we imagine them than they actually are. I didn’t want anything to slow me down. It’s OK to be 40ft tall until you get caught in bed with the babysitter.”
Hmmm. I try a Bob Dylan quote he’s fond of, “Fear and Hope: always sounds like a comedy team to me…”
It’s like being in a restaurant and ordering the most expensive thing on the menu, and you realise it’s hog jowls or deer genitals
“Well, you know, some day Bob will get the attention he deserves. In the meantime he’s just going to have to work in obscurity. Nobody will really acknowledge him until he’s gone.”
This, in case, you hadn’t noticed, is irony.
He divides his songs into bawler and brawlers; the first sweet and lyrical, the second defiant, wounded and often sung in an epic, throaty growl, not unlike that of Captain Beefheart. Simon Schama, the historian, says Waits’s voice is “one of the great sound instruments of American art”, and describes the growl mode as “the raspy ruins of a voice that is itself like a building shattered by shellfire and coated with befouled sand”.
“I guess I only have two categories,” Tom says in less elevated terms, “I need you and leave me alone.”
He is more revealing when he starts a strange riff about the need to write songs.
“It’s something you do compulsively, like people who are always looking for bottle caps on sidewalks, always looking for quarters behind the sofa. They say trees only create fruit to nourish themselves. The fruit is the absolute perfect compost for the tree. The fruit is not for you, it’s for the tree”
“You mean,” I say, “the songs are for you?”
At the end of the book, after Anton’s photos, appear some of Tom’s. They are startling, strange, ragged fragments of a life, of a mind constantly wandering — a coffee-stained sheet of lyrics, a few crows, a landscape scribbled with arcane annotations, a few items from his collection of found objects, things you pick up on the road.
But perhaps most revealing are Golden Jack Rabbit and Oil Can Harry. They are his muses, they have walked with him through life. The only shot of the rabbit is when it was caught, glowing old in his car headlights, but there are many Harrys: oil stains that form into the shape of a man. He’s been collecting Harrys since he was a child.
“I’ve always seen things that are not meant to be seen, particularly with stains on the ground. That’s something that’s been with me since I was a kid. And the thing is, they just go away. Go back tomorrow and they’re gone…”
Tom Waits embodies the unsettled soul of America. This is the dreamed life of a great artist, captured in its fleeting moments by Anton’s lens. It will never be completed because the road, like the songs, goes on for ever. “You know it’s hard to imagine the world will go on without you, but it will do nicely. Think of all the people leaving behind unfinished songs. Your whole life is going to be an unfinishing song… It’s not neat and tidy for anybody. We’re all going to die in the middle of a sentence… Right…?”